Memories of SSU
Sister Marie Sagues
Instructor, Department of English, 1989-2000
Remembering Hector Lee
Sometime in the 1960s, when I was a young Dominican sister on the English faculty of the then-called Dominican College of San Rafael, Hector Lee came aboard to teach folklore and Chaucer courses. But, as an adjunct professor, Dr. Lee was not required to attend the English department or general faculty meetings, so I never had an occasion to speak with him. I did, however, notice a twinkly-eyed, smiling man, surely enjoying himself. I also noticed the pipe in the pocket of his suit jacket.
After several more years at Dominican, followed by work in high school administration and postgraduate study in creative writing at Stanford, I was offered an adjunct position in the English Department at Sonoma State University.
When I arrived at Sonoma State on the first day of fall 1989 classes, the English Department chair showed me my office. “You’ll be sharing it with an emeritus,” he said, “Dr. Hector Lee. He often stops by to help graduates with folklore research. You’ll meet him soon, no doubt.”
Early in our office-mate days I taught morning classes with an hour’s break between. I recall being hard at work in the office one morning, trying frantically to finish reading a set of papers due the next hour. I still had seventeen papers to go, when Hector walked in. As always, he looked like a professor: tweed jacket, good slacks, necktie, and trimmed grey mustache, pipe visible in his jacket pocket.
After a few polite words of greeting, I settled back to the seventeen papers, but not for long. Hector said, “What are you teaching students theses days?” I had it in my mind to say, “Whatever they can absorb,” but I thought better of it. Instead I said, “How to interview someone and then write it up so it’s worth reading.”
“That is an art, interviewing,” he said. And, for the next forty minutes I had a lesson, by way of stories, about how one interviews successfully. I learned about an old timer in Bodega Bay, a man who feared being tape-recorded but after submitting to such technology, could only cry out in amazement, “Is that ME in that machine? I know I said that!” Another interviewee wouldn’t tell Hector a thing about himself until Hector found out that he raised pigs. Pigs became the subject of Hector’s interview. “Get them to talk anyway you can,” Hector told me. Needless to say, I didn’t get to all the seventeen papers that morning.
Throughout the semester Hector came to school on a fairly regular basis. Even though he’d had cancer, and still had traces of it, he was taking chemotherapy medication orally and had felt fine most days. Once in a while a student would phone or drop by to talk about some aspect of graduate research. I always listened in, learning much about Hector’s field, and about how knowledgeable he was.
One day, when I didn’t have any papers to read and he had no story to tell, we went through his still-packed bookcase, choosing some of his published work for me to take home and read. I came to love his clear, precise writing style, much of it learned, he said, with “Wally” (the noted Wallace Stegner, whom I had met during my Stanford year) and others who also had become successful writers.
Whenever Hector was present, office hours became enjoyable, entertaining and educational. I was sorry when one semester he stopped coming to the campus. Not long after, he died of the cancer that the oral medication had failed to control. A few weeks later, at an outdoor commemoration of his life near the lakes on campus, I added my comments to those of many other colleagues who clearly loved and admired this intelligent, charming gentleman, a man so kind to his students and to me as well. I told about how during my Hector-day office hours there was no way to study or prepare for the next class. Hector’s stories were many; he needed to tell them, and I needed to hear them. I shall not forget this dear man, his charm, along with his deep love of storytelling, his wit and his pipe.